Virtual Events are Awesome! Here’s Why

I became an academic librarian in February of 2021. Starting a new position during a pandemic is… weird, to put it lightly. For one thing, I’ve only done one in-person event. Everything else has been virtual. If I want to be honest about it, I kind of want it to stay this way.

Don’t get me wrong! As a former children’s librarian, I know the euphoria that happens when you have a good preschool story time or you can see, in real time, children growing from the services you’re providing. Nothing made me happier than watching kids learn and appreciate art in my Art for All Ages program. There’s a certain energy to in-person events that you can’t capture online.

The author with middle school students at a recent literacy outreach.

That’s not the point of this blog post, though. I’m writing this to tell you that virtual events are, in their own way, totally awesome. They’re unique and they have their own advantages, and every time I think about what we’re capable of now thanks to technology, I’m blown away.

Let me break down why virtual events are totally awesome into four of their many benefits:

  1. You can get presenters from anywhere. I’m lucky in that I have a budget that would allow me to fly people in from other places and put them up in hotels. But is that the best use of those funds? Especially now, because tickets are so much more expensive and flying is so complicated. Webinars skip that whole step. Just this year, I’ve hosted lecturers from Florida, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey. I didn’t have to worry once about booking a hotel or what would happen if a flight got canceled. My goal is to eventually get someone from a different continent. Imagine hosting a webinar with someone currently in Paris or Barcelona or Tokyo! How cool would that be?
  2. No masks or social distancing necessary. My friends and colleagues in public libraries know well the struggle of getting people to wear masks. Students at my campus have been incredibly courteous about wearing masks in our library and about campus, but it only takes one confrontation to ruin the atmosphere of an event. Then there are the logistics that go into limiting attendance and social distancing. No worries about that when everyone watching on their own devices in their own spaces. And if you plan for 50 but 200 show up, cool! Not as muh when you have limited seating in a real-world auditorium. Been there, done that. It wasn’t fun even pre-pandemic.
  3. Accessibility. Yes, I know the digital divide can make this a struggle—My college is in an area where there are large gaps in connectivity in communities. Thankfully, we’ve been awarded grants to address these issues. We distribute Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops now.

    Once students have those resources, our recorded webinars can be accessed from any device with an internet connection. This is a benefit to students with demanding schedules because of jobs, families, other classes, or any number of responsibilities they’re juggling. Webinars are also an excellent way to include students who continue to take classes from home because of mobility issues, vulnerability to COVID, or because online learning is the most convenient form for them. Students with hearing difficulties have access to subtitles and captions. They can replay portions of archived webinars if they need or want a refresher. YouTube also allows students to slow down or speed up a video to match their own pace. I love webinars for the same reason I loved e-books as a public librarian: the technology makes for a more accessible and user-friendly experience.
  4. Your audience is the world. This is especially true if you offer free webinars and advertise them on social media. We have had people tune in from all over the globe for a Shakespeare presentation in April, and it’s so neat to see attendees type in the chat that they’re tuning in from far, far away. Again, the excitement is different from watching a live audience absorb an idea or having a patron thank you in person, but it’s still thrilling.
Zoom Webinar held on September 1st, 2021, as archived on the South Texas College Library Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNLbMCUVaVk&t=7s&ab_channel=SouthTexasCollegeLibrary

Job satisfaction can be hard to come by in a virtual world, especially if you’re not someone used to cultivating relationships online. That said, webinars can still give those of us who have been seeking out that feedback a bit of what we lost when libraries shut down. Even once our situation changes, which (depending on who you ask) could be years into the future, I don’t see virtual programs going away. I’m certainly not going to stop. I find it too valuable a resource for our students and faculty.

I will definitely do in-person events again, but mostly for local presenters and programs that don’t translate well to online formats, like anything that involves food. I might be able to find job satisfaction through Zoom webinars, but until someone figures out how to digitize pizza, popcorn, and cookies, it’s just not going to have the same draw for our students. Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll be able to share a virtual pizza with a class while they listen to someone lecturing about cloud computing from Trinidad.

That sounds totally awesome to me.

Pandemic Planning: A Balancing Act

Please join us in welcoming Heather Bobrowicz, Programming Librarian at South Texas College, as a new First Year Academic Librarian blogger for the 2021-2022 year here at ACRLog.

2021 has been an interesting year so far. I began my first academic librarian position this year, in February to be precise. I’ve been spending a lot of my time in webinars and trainings, reading about the challenges and unique experiences academic libraries face, and generally adjusting to a new environment. I’m not new to librarianship. I earned my MLS in 2014 and have since worked in two different public library systems, both as a “substitute librarian” and as a children’s librarian. Now I’m settling in to a community college as a programming librarian, and I’m running in to one itty bitty, teeny weeny problem.

How in the world can I plan for the future when everything is so uncertain?

Being a public librarian meant I had to go with the flow a lot. I moved between branches when I worked in Albuquerque, and I had to adjust to the different settings and communities I served. One branch was in an affluent area full of seniors, another was practically next door to a high school, and yet another was kitty-corner to the city’s main bus station. Every branch had different needs, and I bounced between all three on a weekly basis. While my schedule and my working conditions were on the chaotic side, I had reliability. Book clubs, technology help, and knitting groups were popular at the library with a lot of seniors. Teen programs actually got some attendance at the one near the high school. And with the bus station one, I just held on for dear life and was ready for anything. I made a lot of guest passes and visitor cards.

I’m running into a very different situation in my community college job. The pandemic has made everything unpredictable. One moment I’m planning in-person programs that I will also stream online to improve access and archive the recording, and the next the kibosh has been put on any face-to-face at all. My campus put off in-person classes for the first two weeks, and everyone is holding their breath to see if we’ll keep our in-person numbers through the rest of the semester.

I’ll be clear: I like online programs. I like that I can get people from all around the world to come talk to our students, staff, and faculty. I like keeping an archive of the webinar for faculty to use in their classes. I like the simplicity of not having to set up a space. However, I miss that energy an in-person program can carry. I miss having options for interactive events that just aren’t possible to rig up with Zoom Webinar, even with all its fancy features like breakout rooms and polls.

Most of all, I miss predictability. Yes, there are always contingencies, but I’d rather plan for “oh no, we didn’t buy enough snacks” than “oh no, the whole campus us shutting down because of an outbreak.” It’s a silly thing to complain about in comparison to all the other terrible things going on in the world, but I feel like it needs to be said: This is hard, and those of us who are struggling to get it done deserve a pat on the back. I can only imagine what it’s like to be a new librarian in these circumstances. Hang in there! It isn’t always this wild!

I guess the main thing 2021 is shaping up to teach me is to make all my plans in pencil, and never take for granted having steady ground beneath my feet. You never know when the world’s going to shake things up and you’ll be left scrambling in ways you never imagined, and honestly couldn’t prepare for back in Library School.

This field really is about learning as you go, especially now.